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Russia reveals its fire-hit mystery submarine was nuclear powered

Lisa Micheal 29 Jul 4
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during a meeting at the Moscow Kremlin on July 4 2019.

A top secret Russian military submarine hit by a fire earlier this week was nuclear powered, Russia has admitted, with the country's defense minister saying the nuclear reactor has been contained.

Russia has been accused of something of a cover-up after it failed to reveal details of a fire on a military submarine that led to the deaths of 14 sailors.

A conversation between President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, published by the Kremlin website on Thursday, reveals that the submarine was nuclear powered.

Putin asks Shoigu directly in a transcript of the conversation: "What about the nuclear power unit?"

Shoigu replies: "Mr President, the nuclear power unit has been sealed off and all personnel have been removed. Plus, the crew has taken the necessary measures to save the unit, which is in working order. This means we can repair the submersible quickly."

Putin then asks whether the submarine, now in Severomorsk's naval base, can be repaired completely and Shoigu replies "yes, completely." Shoigu noted that the fire started in the battery compartment.

Mystery has surrounded exactly which submersible was involved in the incident. The Kremlin said Tuesday that a "deep-water research submersible in the Barents Sea" (located off the northern coast of Russia and Norway) which was part of Russia's Northern Fleet suffered a fire in which 14 sailors died of smoke inhalation.

The Ministry of Defense said the incident happened Monday but no details were revealed until late on Tuesday. The submarine incident then sparked global interest and speculation it was nuclear powered because of the secrecy surrounding it, with some Russian media also accusing the government of a cover-up.

Russia's defense ministry has not identified the vessel and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that he could not name the vessel because it "belongs to the highest level of classified data, so it is absolutely normal for it not to be disclosed."

An earlier conversation between Putin and Shoigu on Tuesday revealed that the submarine is a deep-water research submersible; Putin also said that it was "an unusual vessel" with a "highly professional crew."

But Russian media, citing sources, believe it to be the almost apocryphal sub called the AS-12 or "Losharik." Not much is known about the vessel but the sub is believed to be capable of diving to extreme depths and used for special military operations. The submarine is also believed to be operated by a "Deep Water Research" unit that reports to Russia's military intelligence unit, the GRU.

The conversation published by the Kremlin Thursday appears to be designed to address speculation around the sub. It also appears to be an attempt to avoid the type of furor that followed the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, in which 118 people died. Putin was accused of responding too slowly to the disaster.

On Thursday, Defense Minister Shoigui said that the ministry is working to assist the deceased submariners' families. Putin said the submariners, seven of whom were captains and two decorated with Russia's highest honorary title of "Hero of the Russian Federation," should receive state honors.